Miguel Geronimo found himself testing the new harvester during his first season as an apple picker. He previously worked in restaurants but was enjoying orchard work.

Miguel Geronimo found himself testing the new harvester during his first season as an apple picker. He previously worked in restaurants but was enjoying orchard work.

A new mobile harvesting system from Picker Technologies has the potential not just to speed up apple picking, but to enhance the value of the crop, the company says.

he harvesting system, which includes onboard electronic quality sorting, has been more than three years in the making. Four models of the latest version were extensively tested and tweaked in the field this fall on apples and other fruits. Oxbo, which partnered with Picker Technologies to develop the system, is ready to build and sell the machine ­commercially.

The companies are also exploring the potential for using the system to apply postharvest treatments, such as fungicides or quality enhancers, in the field when they would be the most effective.

Worker productivity

The system was designed to increase worker productivity by eliminating the unproductive aspects of picking, which are walking to and from bins to deposit fruit and climbing up and down and moving ladders, said John Albert, Picker Technologies’s vice president of business development.

The self-propelled system has a small elevated platform at each side on the front where two pickers can stand to pick fruit from the tops of the trees. The platforms can be moved up and down or in and out hydraulically to suit the tree canopy and crop load.  Two more workers pick from the ground, walking in front of the machine as it crawls down the row. A worker on the platform can adjust the speed and direction as necessary.

Each of the four pickers has a pneumatic tube for apples. A small motor creates a vacuum in the tubes, and the orifice of the tube is designed to form a seal as an apple is placed in it so that the pressure differential carries the apple along. The tubes have baffles inside every couple of inches to maintain movement of the fruit to the top of the platform without damage and without bumping each other. The apples are decelerated in a water tank before going into an electronic sorter.

The company hopes that picker productivity will be more than 45 apples per minute on the machine, versus 20 to 25 apples per minute when working with picking bags and ladders. And, because picking with the platform is less strenuous than ladder work, it should help expand the potential labor force, Albert said. In addition, quality control supervisors are not required in the field.

The electronic sorter, from the Dutch company Ellips, assesses size, color, and external defects (including bruising) and sorts the fruit into either a fresh fruit bin or a cull bin. It can identify 60 to 65 percent of the culls, and Albert said that with further camera enhancements the percentage should increase to 85 or 90, while the percentage of good fruit that ends up in the cull bin should be less than 1 percent.

From the sorting system, the fruit goes into a new type of bin filler that Picker Technologies designed, which has a vertical filling head, rather than rotary. The bin shifts back and forth and up and down while being filled, depending on the level of the fruit. Full bins are deposited behind the machine to be picked up by a forklift, and empty bins are loaded in the front.  Real-time data on the quality and size distribution of the apples in a bin can be printed in the field or sent electronically to the packer ahead of the fruit’s arrival.

Grower council

Albert said the partners relied on input from a “growers council” while developing the machine. Growers said they were looking to address the cost and potential lack of labor, and wanted to reduce the cost of handling unmarketable fruit. On average, between 15 and 20 percent of the apples that are taken to the warehouse are thrown away or sent on to a processor to be made into juice. “That’s a big money loser,” Albert observed.

Removing culls in the field means that growers don’t have to pay in-charges on them, and warehouses don’t have to handle and store upackable fruit, Albert explained. Growers can take the culls directly to the processor. Though not a valuable commodity, they are worth more and incur less cost than if they are diverted from the warehouse.

Return on investment

The harvesting system is 7.5 feet wide at the bottom and has been tested in plantings with anywhere from a 10- to 16-foot row spacing. Twelve feet is considered ideal. The chassis is on tracks, rather than wheels, making it easy to turn at the ends of the rows. Albert said the machine is a candidate for use on 70 percent of the total apple acreage in Washington State, and 95 percent of the modern plantings.

The company declined to say how much it will cost. Albert said a grower who has at least 120 acres and a range of varieties with a total harvest period of 11 to 12 weeks stands to gain well over $1,000 per acre. Leasing possibilities are being explored.

Albert said a harvesting system should pay for itself in two or three years, but, in the case of hail damage, it could pay for itself in one season by enabling picking and sorting the crop in the field.

The machine can run 24 hours a day, as is fitted with lights. Because of its sorting capability, it’s not critical for pickers to be able to clearly see color or defects.

Vince Bryan III, a founding partner of Picker Technologies, said the system is also suitable for harvesting other tree fruit crops, such as pears and stone fruits. Transport tubes of an appropriate size can easily be fitted to the machine to handle a wide range of foods. The machines are constructed by Oxbo at its plant in ­Lynden, Washington. Oxbo manufactures the chassis and has the other components custom made.